When less is more

Could subtractive changes make your life better?

Back in the early days of the pandemic, one of the family-friendly TV shows that many people binged was “Lego Masters.” It featured teams of adults competing to build the most spectacular LEGO structures. As a clock ticked down, the contestants would fill bucket after bucket with the plastic bricks, using them to construct massive LEGO cityscapes, fantastical creatures and elaborate movie scenes. What becomes clear as you watch the show is that when it comes to LEGOs, bigger is often better.

A new study by a team at the University of Virginia illustrates how our minds are drawn to this “bigger is better” way of thinking. Researchers asked participants to renovate the LEGO structure below so that it would hold a brick – an actual brick – without collapsing on the Lego Guy. If they succeeded, they would earn one dollar. Volunteers could use additional LEGOs in the renovation, and each one would subtract ten cents from their payment. 

How would you solve the problem?

“For most people, their first inclination is to grab some extra Legos and add three more bricks under the platform,” one of the researchers, Benjamin Converse, said in an interview. “About 60% of people pursue that solution under normal conditions.” 

In other words, most people fix the structure by adding to it. But an even simpler solution that wouldn’t cost you a dime? Remove the existing pillar support. That way, the roof sits flush on the base, offering enough support for a brick (and enough clearance for Mr. Lego). “The subtractive solution is more efficient,” the researchers said, “but you only notice it if you don’t jump to an additive conclusion.” Sometimes, less is more.

Most of us default to additive solutions. To motivate yourself to do more yoga, for instance, you might add an incentive, like a sweet treat for every hour of yoga you finish. Such incentives can work, but subtracting barriers may have a far greater impact. Dropping something from your schedule to make room for a yoga class could be more effective than rewarding yourself with a warm cookie (tasty as it may be). 

It sounds simple enough. But in problem-solving mode, our brain often defaults to adding more rather than doing less. “Overlooking subtraction may mean that people are missing out on opportunities to make their lives more fulfilling, their institutions more effective and their planet more livable,” the researchers concluded.

In the past year, we’ve had to subtract many things from our lives. Now that COVID-19 vaccinations are more available, it’s tempting to add back everything we’ve missed. Historian Nancy Bristow says that people felt a similar impulse during the 1918 flu pandemic. “People get frustrated, again partly because it's really inconvenient. It is not that fun to be quarantined. It's not that fun to not be able to leave your homes. So people are anxious to get back to regular life. ” 

In some ways, the COVID pandemic has been an opportunity to start over and think more about the habits we want to fold back into our everyday lives. With everything we juggle, doing less isn’t always possible, but the University of Virginia study raises an important question: Are there subtractive ways to make our lives better?

ON THE PODCAST

April 12: A virus is more than a biological organism. It’s a social organism. It detects fissures in societies and fault lines between communities. Historian Nancy Bristow shares the lessons that we can take today from a century-old pandemic.

April 19: Why is humor in short supply in many of our lives? This week, we explore the psychological effects of humor, and why so many of us fall off a “humor cliff” as we become adults. Plus, why indulging in a joke can be a powerful way to unlock creativity and productivity.

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WE ASKED…

What do you think you could do *less* of to make your life better?

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